Gunaikurnai marine science student Courtney Burns named NAIDOC Youth of the Year

By Candice Marshall 3 July 2023
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Twenty-five year old Gunaikurnai woman Courtney Burns has been named the 2023 National NAIDOC Week Awards’ Youth of the Year.

Hailing from South Gippsland, Victoria, on Gunaikurnai (land and sea) Country, Courtney’s passion is ocean Country health.

Currently studying marine science at James Cook University (JCU), and assisting in its shark research lab, Courtney’s career focus is on the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and elasmobranchs (a subclass of cartilaginous fishes, including sharks and rays). 

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living side by side with sharks and rays for tens of thousands of years, there is no scientific record of this human impact – positive or negative – on the animals.

Courtney wants to change this, and is commended for her work in bringing First Nations culture and history into scientific literature.

Ultimately, Courtney wants to change the way the world sees sharks and promote their conservation.

As a JCU student ambassador Courtney also works to inspire other young First Nations people to consider tertiary education and has co-created an Indigenous student support community.

“NAIDOC Youth of the Year — that has a deadly ring to it, I reckon!” Courtney said in her acceptance speech.

“… I just want to thank everyone who has got me to where I am today,” she continued. “This is actually gnarly. I’m going to keep it short and sweet. Thank you so much guys and for our Elders.”

About NAIDOC and the awards

NAIDOC Week is a yearly celebration of the culture, history and triumphs of First Nations people.

The theme for 2023 is For Our Elders, inviting reflection on the wisdom and guidance of Elders in communities.

The National NAIDOC Week Awards celebrate Indigenous excellence across the nation, honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders making outstanding contributions to their community and beyond.

This year’s awards ceremony was held on Saturday night (1 July) on Meanjin Country at Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Here is the full list of this year’s winners:

  • National NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award: Aunty Dr Naomi Mayers OAM
  • National NAIDOC Person of the Year Award: Professor Kelvin Kong
  • National NAIDOC Female Elder Award: Aunty Dr Matilda House-Williams
  • National NAIDOC Male Elder Award: William Tilmouth
  • National NAIDOC Sportsperson Award: Donnell Wallam 
  • National NAIDOC Youth Award: Courtney Burns
  • National NAIDOC Creative Talent Award: Rachel Perkins
  • National NAIDOC Caring for Country and Culture Award: Lala Gutchen
  • National NAIDOC Education Award: Bubup Wilam Aboriginal Child and Family Centre
  • National NAIDOC Innovation Award: Daniel Motlop